Pittsburgh Power coach Derek Stingley, whose father was paralyzed by Jack Tatum, brings broad view
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Saturday, June 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Derek Stingley was 7 years old, confused and in denial, when his mother told him his father was paralyzed.
“I said, ‘What does that word mean? What do you mean he can't walk? Not Superman.' ”
Stingley, 41, the coach of the Power, is the youngest of three sons of former New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley. On Aug. 20, 1978, Darryl Stingley suffered a broken neck and became a quadriplegic after absorbing a hit from Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum.
For the next four months, Derek didn't see his father, finally visiting him in a Chicago hospital just before Christmas.
“I crawled up on his chest,” Stingley said, “and beat him on his chest and said, ‘Dad, get up. Everybody says you can't walk. Get up.' ”
Stingley paused in his story and watched his Power players run and stretch while getting ready for practice at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
Touched by the memory of his paralyzed father, his voice softened.
“He didn't move,” Stingley said. “At that point in my life, a 7-year-old boy, I understood what that word meant.”
Eventually, father and son accepted their fate. Darryl Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair before he died in 2007, but he worked in the Patriots front office for a time, counseling injured players. He also wrote a book, “Happy to be Alive,” and started a nonprofit foundation for troubled youth in Chicago.
“Him waking up every day with a plan made me realize, ‘Why should I be upset, if he's not upset?' ” Stingley said. “I needed to be on the same wagon that he was on.”
Stingley devoted many hours of his childhood toward his father's rehabilitation and therapy.
“He and I, we really bonded,” Stingley said.
“I was the one who was always massaging his arms, moving his arms, bending his fingers, trying to get the nerves to send signals to his brain.
“I was determined for him to get up and walk. I didn't want to give up. But it just never happened. Mentally, that was tough on me.”
He also started to share his father's taste in music.
“Lots of jazz, Stevie Wonder, inspirational stuff that makes you think,” Stingley said.
When his parents separated, Stingley moved with his mother to the west side of Chicago, a neighborhood he described as “drug-infested and gang-infested.”
His oldest brother, Darryl Jr., has been in and out of jail for selling drugs, Derek said.
“Me, I was naïve,” he said. “I had good friends with good parents who kind of kept me on the straight and narrow.”
Stingley inherited his father's athletic ability and played baseball at Orr Community Academy in Chicago.
Blessed with speed, he went to Purdue, where his father had been a star.
Torn between two sports, he tried two junior colleges and was drafted in the 26th round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993.
Stingley spent three years as an outfielder, but an unusual health issue helped derail his career.
“When I tried to run a ball out to first base, I would pass out, hit the ground, face in the dirt,” he said. “If I would hit a double or triple, I would fine.”
Stingley had developed a habit of holding his breath while running down the line.
“I was breathing in when I should have been breathing out,” he said. “I wasn't getting enough oxygen to my brain.”
A mouthpiece helped, but there was another problem:
“The word out on me was I couldn't hit the slider,” he said.
He left baseball, turning to semi-pro and indoor football. In 1995, he tied an American Football Association semi-pro record for return touchdowns (five) while playing for the Hammond (La.) Thunder. Friday, while Stingley was in Des Moines, Iowa, with the Power for their game Saturday, he was inducted into the AFA Semi-Pro Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Tied to his father to this day, Derek is listed as Darryl on the AFA Website.
Stingley spent three weeks on the New York Jets practice squad in 1999, but he mainly played in the Arena Football League until 2004, when he started coaching.
In 1997, he had his only injury scare. While playing for the Albany (N.Y.) Firebirds, Stingley was knocked unconscious and taken from the arena on a stretcher. His father attended many games, but not this one, and when a teammate called with the news, “He freaked out,” Stingley said.
“The first thing he thought was, ‘Lightning struck twice in my family.'
“But I never lost feeling. I was just knocked out. I called my dad and said, ‘I'm fine. I'm literally walking out of the hospital.' ”
Stingley said his father never held ill will toward Tatum, but he wishes he would have apologized.
“There should have been some brotherhood, some fraternity,” he said, “where he should have at least come by and said, ‘Hey, man, I'm sorry for what I did. I was just doing my job.' ”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@ or 412-320-7997.
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